Edwardian Britain may have been more reticent than resplen-dent, but in
the East in 1911 a fabulous feast of pageantry and pomp heralded the
dawn of the modern age. India and her 315 million subjects were “the
brightest jewel in the Imperial diadem” when King George V’s coronation
as King-Emperor was held in Delhi. He was the only monarch to visit
British India, once as Prince of Wales in 1906 and once to be in-vested
with his imperial title. It was the biggest news event for the fledgling
film industry and the spectacle was one of the first colour feature
films to be seen worldwide.

The durbar was a tradition that the
Mogul rulers had long adhered to, and equated to the European court or
levee. Ceremony was the tool by which a small British contingent ruled a
massive population, with 147 languages and 2,380 castes, and it was
vital in maintaining India’s submission. Viceroy Lytton, who presided
over the 1877 durbar, recognised the essential function of this Indian
spectacle: “The decorative details of an Indian pageant are like those
parts of an animal which are
no use at all for butcher’s meat, and
even unfit for scientific dissection, but from which augers draw the
omens that move armies and influence Princes.”

All three durbars
(1877, 1903 and 1911) took place on the plain outside Delhi, the seat of
government before 1858, when control of India passed to Britain. The
1911 durbar lacked the old-school lavishness of Lord Curzon’s 1903
hoopla when the Viceroy arrived by elephant and there were 200 others in
the procession, but it gave a nod to the modern world. Motor cars were
used for the first time and political concessions were granted –
reversing the partition of Bengal and moving the capital from Calcutta
to Delhi.

The scale of the 1911 durbar was staggering. The focal point of the King’s five-week tour from Bombay to Delhi to Calcutta was their majesties’ state entrance into Delhi on 7
December. At this time there were myriad festivities, topped with pukka
British Indian activities – a polo tournament and point-to-point
racing. An inclement climate did little to curtail the British Raj at
play, and the pagal [a crazy gymkhana], jackal-hunting, pig-sticking and
fancy-dress parties were de rigueur.

It took a year to prepare for
the anticipated 200,000 visitors, and cost £1 million. There were 233
separate camps over 25sq miles (the King-Emperor’s camp covered 85
acres). Three bakeries were equipped to produce 20,625 loaves a day;
2,220 cattle and 2,941 sheep were slaughtered; and two rail lines were
built for the site. For the troops and followers there was a free issue
of jam, cheese and butter for the 10 days. Four hundred ruling chiefs
and princes, maharajas and rajas were in attendance. A guest who
stayed at the camp of the Madras Presidency recalled, “Every tent was
lighted by electricity, enormous marquees formed the living and
reception rooms, and these contained large brick stoves for fires in the
evening, which, at Delhi, were bitterly, though healthily, cold.” Each
Governor was allowed 10 guests and in front of each camp there was a
well-trimmed lawn.

This enormous encampment heaved itself to
attention for the State Entry. Unlike in Curzon’s day, a nascent
political correctness encouraged the King to make his entry on horseback
and led to confusion among the crowds who failed to recognise him, as
they were looking for elephants. The Field Marshal uniform the king
chose to wear as head of the army, with the light blue riband of the
Order of the Star of India, looked little different to any other
military uniform to most of the crowd. The King had chosen this type of
entrance “so that he might more easily be seen of the people” and as a
sign of recognition that the troops were the backbone of British India.
There was a deliberate attempt not to hark back to 1903, which had
plumbed tradition for its splendour. The Standard Motor Car Company
supplied 70 vehicles for the Royal party and officials, all painted in
royal blue with red lines, upholstered in blue leather, with the Royal
crown on the side panels and a crown mascot on the bonnet. The Times
re-ported the lack of elephants with disappointment.

At this modern
durbar the press were an important presence. The 90 pressmen who
attended were each charged £120 but quartered in an excellent location
near the King-Emperor’s camp and were so complimentary about the durbar
that the King thanked them for services rendered. The growth of the film
industry between 1903 and 1911 meant this durbar was to be seen by the
wider public for the first time. Several film companies were present.
Gaumont was the first to screen footage in Britain, and American pioneer
Charles Urban filmed it in Kinemacolour. Fictitious books were written
about it, such as An American Girl at the Durbar, which recounted the
excitement of the heroine, an unlikely character with a penchant for
army officers.

Gilded carriages, bejewelled princes, boy-kings,
rubies the size of a pigeon’s egg, a British emperor and his subjects –
all made perfect footage for one of the first colour feature films ever
made and all were present for the main event on 12 December.
Eyewitnesses vied with each other to describe the spectacle as India’s
princes came to pay homage to their new emperor. ND Barton, a boy from
The King’s School in New South Wales, was among the thousands lining the
road on which they would arrive. “The Begum [of Bhopal, the only woman
in the procession] with a chainwork of gold over her face. The princes
from Sikkim with their turret-like golden crowns, and those from Burma
with crown-like soup-plates turned upside down…” he marvelled.

majesties arrived at noon, preceded by 824 British and Indian veterans
of the 1857 Mutiny who wore a small bronze ‘V’ on a scarlet riband on
their right breast. In full state regalia and imperial crown, with the
huge scarlet emblem of Empire, shaped like a fan, held above him, the
King took to his throne with the Queen as the Proclamation was made. The
Coronation Park held a huge semi-circular audience stand for 12,000
guests, opposite a bigger semi-circular terraced earthen mound, where
 60,000-70,000 native spectators were housed. Between the two stood two
pavilions and a parade-ground bursting with soldiers. The King’s address
was followed by the princes of the Raj paying homage in the shamiana
(homage pavilion). They then walked to the royal pavilion, where King
George V and Queen Mary were crowned Emperor and Empress of India, and
the King made the political announcements concerning the new capital of

The riot of colour was astounding. The Imperial Cadet Corps,
part of the King’s es-cort, in their white-and-gold uniforms with
turquoise-blue turbans and turquoise sashes, seemed like the “dernier
cri in artistic beauty”, reported Miss LG Moberly. The King had 10 pages
grouped on the steps of the shamiana, rajakins in exquisite dress, no
two alike. Each had a diamond brooch of the King’s initials, a gift from
the King, fastened in his turban. The officers of Probyn’s Horse wore a
scarlet-and-gold cummerbund over a dark blue coat edged with gold and
topped by striped gold-and-turquoise turbans. Skinner’s Horse were
resplendent in mustard-coloured uniform. The raj and the Indian princes
shimmered with extravagant finery.

Not everybody was overawed,
though. John Fortescue, who had lamented the lack of elephants at the
state entrance, was scandalised by the red carpet around the foot of the
shamiana, and which led to the royal pavilion. “It was of commonplace
red baize which is, perhaps, most generally associated with weddings at
churches in the west end of London,” he harrumphed, “and thoroughly
miserable for the officers dressed in scarlet to have to walk on as it
clashed abominably.”

There were strict instructions for the princes
coming to pay homage to the King at an event that consolidated their own
place in the ruling elite. Hierarchy among the princes was strict, with
the five paramount chiefs receiving 21 gun salutes. The rest of the
hierarchy was divided aurally. Sixteen princes had a 13-gun salute, 30 a
nine-gun salute, and so on. The Gaekwar of Baroda was among the first
rank, but was suspected of fomenting anti-British sedition and had not
attended the rehearsal. He arrived without his full regalia, but
sporting a cane. After giving a curt bow to the king he turned his back
and jauntily sauntered away. “The Gaekwar Bob” became the talking point
for people at home watching the film at their local picture palace. The
“disgraceful incident” does not seem particularly exceptional when all
the film footage is viewed, but he had the misfortune of becoming the
symbol of British offended pride.

The 50,000 troops at the durbar –
horse, camelry, foot and artillery – all took part in the Royal Review
on 14 December, an exceptional show of military might culminating in an
awe-inspiring cavalry charge.  The Emperor, preceded by a trooper,
passed down the army lines on his black charger, then galloped back to
the saluting point where he remained in the sun for two hours. The
crowds thrilled to see famous regiments such as the Gordon Highlanders
and the Camel Corps. The seven-year-old Nawab of Bawalpur rode past the
king on a camel, and the 14-year-old Maharaja of Jodhpur outstripped the
hardest riders on a magnificent white steed at the head of his mounted
As celebrations in Delhi came to a close His Imperial Majesty
left to go tiger-hunting in Nepal, where he finally rode the elusive
elephant. He shot 24 tigers and bagged a right-and-left tiger and a
A splendid spectacle in every way, the 1911 Delhi durbar was a
herald of the modern age, but with the magnificence of the old one
giving its last colourful huzzah.

The 1911 Delhi Durbar was the first major news story for the fledgling film industy. The Delhi Durbar saw competing news companies vie to secure footage to show at home and around the world.

The Delhi Durbar became a world event, seen by people across the globe.

Kinemacolour was used at the Delhi Durbar to record colour footage.

The infamous incident of ‘The Gaekwar Bob’ became a hotly contested topic of the day, as the picture palaces showed footage from ther Delhi Durbar to crowds at home.

The Colonial Film Institute: Delhi Durbar 1911